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Breaking Down the National Intelligence Estimate on Climate Change

By Caroline Spencer

On October 21, 2021, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, in conjunction with the White House and the Pentagon, released an intelligence assessment on climate change and its impact on national security. The National Intelligence Estimate on Climate Change (NIE) provides an analysis conducted by all eighteen U.S. intelligence agencies and supported by the U.S. federal scientific community. This report analyzes the potential geopolitical impacts from increased natural disasters and dwindling resources, and how those changes might collide with U.S. security interests.

The twenty-seven-page report arrives at three general conclusions about what climate change, on its current trajectory, will mean for national interests and security issues.

Key Assessment #1

The first conclusion addressed in the report is that as global temperatures rise, geopolitical tensions will rise, especially on issues related to climate responsibility and cutting emissions. Based on current political and economic policies, the NIE determines that it is highly unlikely that the parties to the Paris Climate Deal will collectively meet the goals of the agreement.

The primary goal of the Paris Climate Deal was to keep global temperatures from rising 1.5° Celsius above the pre-industrial levels of the 19th century. To put that in perspective, global average surface temperatures are already at 1.1°C over pre-industrial levels. At the current trajectory of increased carbon dioxide transmissions, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that we will reach the 1.5°C threshold by 2030.

There are three issues that are likely to cause most of the rising geopolitical tension: disagreements over how to speed the reduction of net greenhouse gas emissions, debates regarding which countries bear the most responsibility to act (and pay), and competition over controlling resources and new technology that can help with transitions to clean energy.

What does this mean for national security?

The report states that most countries that rely on fossil fuel exports will continue to resist converting to a world with fewer carbon emissions because they are more concerned with the potential economic, political, and geopolitical consequences. This would be a serious cause for concern, as it could impact bilateral relations and force the U.S. to accept tradeoffs on other national security priorities in exchange for promoting a quicker transition to cleaner energy.

Key Assessment #2

The second conclusion that the NIE reaches is that the physical effects of climate change will intensify geopolitical flashpoints. The arena of geopolitics is already a minefield, and the addition of potentially catastrophic environmental changes will only make things worse. Each nation will naturally prioritize its own interests, but it could be at the expense of others.

This is a highly visible issue already. Melting sea ice has already led to tensions over resource allocation in the Arctic. The strategic competition for shorter shipping routes and the abundance of mineral deposits that are both found within the Arctic Circle will only continue to increase as the ice caps continue to melt. The report even posits that military activity will increase in the Arctic as nations attempt to protect and exploit the areas they have claimed.

What does this mean for national security?

This conclusion seems fairly straightforward- more tension between states means an increased risk of conflicts. But the report highlights other ramifications that would challenge national security interests as well. The rise in temperatures and other extreme impacts of climate change could lead to more conflicts over water and migration. It could also increase the chances that states will start to test and adopt large scale solar geoengineering. While this would greatly contribute to the reduction of carbon emissions and greenhouse gases, it would also create an entirely new area of potential disputes.

Key Assessment #3

The third and final conclusion that the NIE draws is that the effects of climate change will impact developing countries more acutely than wealthier states. Poorer nations with less infrastructure and fewer financial resources are the least able to adapt to the changes wrought by increased global surface temperatures. Furthermore, many, if not most, of these nations are in regions that will be among the first to feel the environmental impacts, such as flooding, droughts, or extreme heat waves. The intelligence community has narrowed down some countries of concern that are highly vulnerable to the physical effects of climate change while also missing the capacity to adapt to the changes.

Why should this concern us?

The environmental changes that could devastate developing nations would cause wealthier and more developed nations to face numerous challenges as well, and they will come with a hefty price tag. These concerns will be difficult to manage without a stronger effort to reduce emissions much quicker than the current trajectory.

Furthermore, the countries of concern would face an increased potential for instability and could easily devolve into internal conflict if they cannot adapt to and overcome the environmental changes they will face. While internal conflicts in developing nations might not seem like a priority issue for U.S. national security, it could create demands for diplomatic, economic, humanitarian, and military resources from the U.S. and major international organizations.

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